The elements at the heart of Jeremy C. Shipp‘s The Atrocities hearken somewhat to the classics found in many a ghost story: someone summoned to a remote and mysterious house; strange events that defy rational explanation; an abundance of secrets, not all of them pleasant. But in Shipp’s book, those elements are shattered and reconfigure into something stranger: a story in which a dreamlike haze settles over the proceedings, and where a selection of disconcerting works of art establishes a surreal and visceral mood. I asked Shipp some questions about ghosts, hauntings, and the nature of memory.
The Atrocities abounds with ambiguous borders: the line between dreams and waking, the border between life and death. How do you as a writer navigate the boundaries between these spaces?
I believe that in the real world, everyone’s perception of reality is a little different. For example, someone’s map of the boundaries between life and death might say that if a living person speaks to the dead, the dead are listening. Someone else’s map might say that when a person dies, they are quickly reincarnated into another being. So when it comes to writing, I make sure that I understand each of my characters’ maps. Life and death, dreams and waking, can easily bleed together in unique ways depending on how my characters’ perceive their world.
What would you say makes for a good ghost story? Were there certain archetypal qualities of ghost stories that you were looking to subvert with The Atrocities?
For me, a good Gothic ghost story explores the dissonance created by clashing the supernatural and the rational, the modern and the archaic. As an admirer of gothic fiction, I wanted to utilize some of the tropes of the genre while at the same time turning these devices on their heads. I’m afraid of giving too much away by going into specifics, but I will say that I wanted to transport my readers into a haunted house that feels both familiar and anomalous, concurrently.
At various points in the narrative, Ms. Valdez uses the nature of her attire to determine whether she’s asleep or awake. How did you settle on this as the test for wakefulness?
Early on I decided that although many aspects of Danna’s life have dissipated over the years, she still expresses herself through her clothing. This is a part of her old life, her old self, that she still holds tight to. And so, no matter where she is, she’s able to use her attire to ground herself to reality.
The setting of The Atrocities includes a host of unsettling works of art. Were there any real-world sculptures or statues that inspired them?
No real-life sculptures inspired the pieces in and around Stockton House, although some of the visages somewhat reflect a few decrepit mannequins and dolls that I’ve happened upon over the years. For example, while renovating the semi-haunted Victorian farmhouse that I’m living in, I found a doll buried in a mound of ash in the attic.
Throughout the book, there are suggestions of tragic events in several characters’ pasts. How much of these characters’ backstories did you know before you started writing the book?
During the initial brainstorming and brain-volcanic eruption stage, many of my characters did divulge quite a few details about their pasts and their pains. I knew what most of them thought about at night when they were attempting to sleep. Strangely enough, however, Robin remained uncharacteristically silent during most of these germinal proceedings. I think she must have been feeling ill that day. I didn’t know much about her until I was ankle-deep in the story itself.
Was there one part of this narrative that particularly unsettled you as you wrote it?
There are myriad scenes and moments that rattled me, though what unnerved me the most was the actualization of Stockton House within my own mind. As the story progressed, Stockton House became more vivid, more disturbingly real to me. I felt closed in at times. I saw the world through Danna’s eyes, and I felt some of the sensations one might experience wandering those labyrinthine corridors.
What’s next for you, in terms of writing or editing projects?
I’ve spawned a few secret projects that I can’t talk about yet. If I do, a sorcerer will be commissioned to transmogrify me into a tea cozy.
I’m also working on a less-secret gothic sci-fi novel set in Northern California.